Laypeople in the Church and in the World of the Third Millennium

– Fr. Andrews Thazath, Archdiocese of Trichur


In the Apostolic Exhortation Christfideles laici of 30 December 1988, Pope John Paul II prophetically said “The third millennium will be of the lay people ”. Duringand after the Second Vatican Council there have been several discussion on the dignity, role and rights of the laity in the Church. Since the future of the Church in the new millennium depends on the role play of the laity, it I very appropriate that the Canon Law Society of India took up the subject Role of the Laity’ for its discussion during the Great Jubilee Year Conference.

The executive committee of the Canon Law Society of India assigned the present author to make a study on the “Protection of the Rights of the Laity”. But during the preparation of this paper it was understood that there has already been different studies on this subject in the past years . Therefore I thought of studying the subject from a different angle, namely to study how and when the rights of the laity are curtailed. Hence the main scope of this study is to give the important occurrences of the denial of the rights of the laity after giving a general sketch from a legal point of view about the rights of the laity and their protective measures.


1. The specificity of the laity

The term “laity” derives from the Greek term laikos and refers to a person who does not belong to the specific category of those who govern, but is a member of the common people The second Vatican Council has clearly articulated the specific vocation and mission of the laity in the following words:

“The term ‘laity’ is here understood to mean all the faithful except those in holy orders and those who belong to a religious state approved by the Church. That is, the faithful who by baptism are incorporated into Christ and integrated into the People of God are made sharers in their particular way in the priestly, prophetic and kingly office of Christ, and have their own part to play in the mission of the whole Christian people in the Church and in the world” (LG 31).

“By reason of their special vocation it belongs to the laity to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will. … It pertains to them in a special way so to illuminate and order all temporal things with which they are closely associated that these may always be effected and grow according to Christ and mat be able to the glory of the Creator and Redeemer (LG 31 § 2).

Like all the Christian faithful, lay people are entrusted with the mission and apostolate by virtue of their very baptism and anointing with holy Myron or confirmation; but secularity is the specific sphere of their life and competence . Unlike the former Codes of Canon Law, including the 1983 Code CIC, the ‘Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches’ (CCEO) of 1990 has given a positive definition about the laity giving secularity as the specific role. We read in CCEO canon 399:

“In this Code, the name of lay persons is applied to the Christian faithful whose proper and special state is secular and who, living in the world, participate in the mission of the Church, and are not in holy orders nor enrolled in the religious state.”

When the Council (LG 31) and the Code speaks “secularity is proper and specific to the laity”, it does not mean that their specific vocation is temporal involvement alone. It means that “the specific vocation of the laity is to seek the kingdom of God (LG 31 § 2) by engaging in temporal matters” . The lay people out their different roles not only in the secular field, but in various ministries and services, as they partake equally in the common priesthood of Christ .

2. Rights and obligations

One of the specific characteristics of the Codes CIC and CCEO is that these Codes offered for the first time a fundamental character of rights and obligations of Christian faithful . Francis J. Morrisey OMI, in his article “Decimo nno … on the Tenth Anniversary of the Code of Canon Law”, says:

Probably of all the parts of the Code, the various sections relating to the rights and obligations of the faithful (and of clergy, religious and laity) are the newest one. They do not have the same legal tradition behind them and are opening up the way for new and creative thinking. The implementation of the right of association (CIC c. 215) and its consequences (c. 216) are among the elements that will call for creative responses. Likewise, the right to reputation and to privacy (c. 220). Of course, if we are to recognize rights, then we must also provide appropriate means (such as alternative forms of dispute resolution – neutral fact finding, conciliation, mediation, arbitration) so that they can be duly vindicated at the local level if necessary”

Augustine Mendonca says:

“Rights and obligations in the Church, therefore, exist in the ecclesial context since they are founded on baptism and other sacraments, and they relate to the threefold functions of Christ as priest, prophet and king. As a consequence, rights cannot be considered as claims in or against the Church, rather they are means for fostering communion, personal and communal holiness and ecclesial mission” .

Both CIC (canons 96-123) and CCEO (canons 909-930) speaks about persons who are capable of acquiring rights and have obligations. The Codes distinguish between two kinds of persons, namely physical persons (CIC cc. 96-112; CCEO cc. 909-919) and juridical persons (CIC cc. 113-123; CCEO cc. 920-930). By baptism a Christian faithful attains canonical personality and thereby acquires rights in the Church. Similarly groups of person or entities – juridical persons – like associations, parishes, diocese/eparchies, sui iuris Churches are subjects of rights and obligations in the Church

The Codes speak about the ‘Obligations and Rights of christian faithful’ in general and those of clergy, religious and laity in particular. Through such a wording, the codes explicitly recognizes that rights and obligations are of their very nature correlative. “This is of particular significance in the understanding and in the application of this Code: even a stated right may not lawfully be pursued unless the corresponding obligation is acknowledged, nor a particular obligation be imposed without due recognition of the correlative right” .


Recognition and promulgation of human rights is one of the greatest achievements of the twentieth century both in the civil and in the religious world. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 at the United Nations is a landmark . In promulgating the revised Code CIC, Pope John Paul II reiterated the necessity of safeguarding and defining the rights of each persons in the Church . Protection or respect for rights had already been listed in four of the ten guiding principles for the revision of the Code .

The protection of the rights are generally exercised through (1) legislative measures (2) administrative measures and (3) judicial measures. Here below are given a brief exposition of these measures in the Church in the light of CIC and CCEO.

1. Legislative protection

Every person, both physical and juridical, come into existence with certain rights and obligations. It is upto the competent authority to take measures to recognize, respect and promote them and give official approval through legal enactments after having made necessary consultations. In the process of legislation, special precaution has to be taken to respect the traditions and customs of groups of people, the needs of the times and placed and protection of the weaker sections and minorities. As stated above, the attempt of CIC and CCEO to legislate a fundamental character of rights and obligations of Christian faithful, is to be appreciated.

Both CIC and CCEO give a list of rights and obligations which are common to all Christian faithful (CIC 208-223; CCEO cc. 11-26) and which are specific to the laity (CIC cc. 224-231; CCEO cc. 400-409). Here below is given a list of these rights and obligations.

1 208 11 Fundamental equality
2 211 14 Proclamation of the Gospel; Education of children
3 212§2 15§2 Right to be heard (Eg. CCEO 82 § 3; 140ff; 235ff.)
4 212§3 15§3 Right of free speech & public opinion
5 213 16 Spiritual Assistance: (rights for sacraments & sacramentals)
6 214 17 Worship and spirituality
(+ ritual rights: CCEO 193; 246;280§1; 678;748;432; CIC 383§2;372§2; 476; 479;)
7 215 18 Association & Assembly
8 216 19 Apostolic Action
9 217 20 Christian Education
10 218 21 Freedom in Sacred Sciences (Cf. CCEO 658-659)
11 219 22 State of life
12 220 23 Reputation and privacy
13 221 24 Protection and privacy
§1: to vindicate and defend rights
§2: Rights in trial
§3: Rights not to be punished
14 223§1&2 26§§1&2 Limitations in the exercise of the rights
15 225§1 406 Mission of the Laity (Eg. CCEO 584)
16 226 407 & 627§1 Marriage and family life
17 227 402 Recognition of civil liberties
18 228§1 408§2,3 Ecclesiastical functions
19 228§2 408§1 Right to be heard as experts/consultors
20 229§1 404§1 Catechetical formation
229§2 404§2 Acquiring knowledge in Sacred Sciences
229§3 404§3 Mandate to teach
21 230§1, §2 §3 403§2 Liturgical functions
22 403§1 Preservation of rite
23 405 Promotion of inter-Catholic action
24 231§1§2 409§1§2 Employees’ right (formation and remuneration)
1 10 Maintenance of integrity of faith
2 209§1 12§1 Communion
209§2 12§2 Duties towards University Church and Particular/Sui iuris Church
3 210 13 Holiness of life
4 211 14 Proclamation of the Gospel
5 212§1 15§1 Obedience to pastors
6 222§1 25§1 Support of the Church
7 222§2 25§2 Social Justice and Charity
8 223§1&2 26§§1&2 Limitations in the exercise of the rights
9 225§1 406 Mission of the laity
10 225§2 401 Vocation of the laity
11 226§1 407 Married life and obligations in the Church
12 226§2 627§2 Education of Children
13 229 404 Theological formation
14 230 403§2 Liturgical functions
15 403§1 Preservation of rite
16 405 Promote inter-Catholic action
17 408§3 Subjection t eccl. Authorities regarding eccl. Functions
18 231§1 409§1 Employees’ formation

There is not much difference between the Latin Code CIC and the Eastern Code CCEO regarding the rights and obligations of the Latin Code. Two of these (cc.403§1 and 405) deal with a concern about rite that is particular to the Eastern Churches. The third (c. 408§3) recalls a principle of general order which is a matter of course, namely, subjection of the laity to authority. Only CCEO c. 404§1 is somewhat different from its model in CIC c. 229§1. CIC c. 226§2 on the right and duty of parents to educate their children is dealt with not in this section of CCEO, but under the title of Catholic Education (CCEO c. 627) .

2. Administrative Protection

There is no right unless it can be exercised. Therefore, it is the duty of every authority in the Church to see that through administrative measures rights are promoted or vindicated.

i) Promotion of the rights: The best way to protect right is to promote the recognition and exercise of rights . The important means for the promotion are the following:

1. Awareness Education : Augustine Mendonca, while dealing with the question of promotion of rights and obligations, says:

“Even though the existence of rights and obligations does not depend on the knowledge a person has of them, their exercise or violation can certainly depend on the knowledge one has of their existence. J. Cuneo rightly observes: “It is not so much that people are deliberately abusing authority or are indifferent to persons. Perhaps in many cases the problem is simply lack of knowledge of the existence of rights and lack of knowledge of the functioning of rights”

He exhorts Indian Canonist:

“As Cano Lawyers, we should be aware of the fact that our ministry is not restricted to teaching in the institutions of higher education or to our work in tribunals. Our ministry should extend to educating the Christian faithful in the parishes, religious institutes, diocesan organisms, etc. A profound knowledge of the rights and obligations in the Church and appropriate skills in interpreting and applying them in concrete circumstances is essential to any success we may desire to achieve in our ministry” .

1. Activating or Establishing Structures: In order to protect the rights of persons and communities, the Church has already developed different structures and offices. These include the offices like Promoter of justice and Defender of Bond (CIC cc. 1430-1437; CCEO cc. 1094-1101), Procurators and Advocates (CIC cc. 1481-1490; CCEO cc. 1139-1148). Appointment of an ombudsman is a possibility . In order that the opinion of the laity be heard and their expert service is made use of, Canon Law provides for structures of consultation like parish and pastoral councils, financial council, diocesan synod or eparchial assembly, patriarchal assembly, various committees and commissions for liturgy, catechism, education, projects, etc. But, unfortunately, in some dioceses, these structures of consultation are either inactive or are even not constituted.

2. Fostering Associations: In order to foster the spiritual, social, charitable and missionary activities of the laity, the Codes have given provision for the creation and management of associations (CIC cc. 298-329; CCEO cc. 573-583).

3. Respecting Rules of Administrative Acts : Very often violation of rights happens because of improper procedures in administrative acts. Therefore, persons in authority should see that administrative decrees are issued after undergoing all the necessary formalities (Cf. CIC cc. 35-95; CCEO cc. 1510-1539).

ii. Vindication of Rights

CIC c. 221 § 1 and CCEO c. 24 §1 says that ‘Christ’s faithful can lawfully vindicate and defend the rights in the Church before the competent ecclesiastical forum in the Church in accordance with the law’. Vindication of rights can be done either administratively or judicially. Contentions regarding juridical status of persons are generally dealt with judicial process. Regarding administrative acts, CIC c. 1400 § 2 (CCEO c. 1055 § 2) makes a restriction that “disputes arising from an act of administrative power can be brought only before the superior or an administrative tribunal”. Accordingly all controversies arising from acts of executive power of governance are dealt with according to the norms of CIC cc. 1732-1739 (CCEO cc. 996-1006) These procedures stipulate three stages of action which the laity should pursue to defend their rights when they are violated., namely (1) prevention of disputes through Conciliation or Mediation / arbitration, (2) Administrative Recourse and (3) Trail in the administrative Tribunal.

1. Conciliation and Arbitration: The Spirit of the Church law, as seen in the Sacred Scripture (Mt. 5:25, 39-41; I. Cor. 6:1-6) and in Canon Law (CCEO cc. 1103 and 998; CIC cc. 1446 § 1; 1733), is that litigations are avoided as far as possible and equitable solutions for controversies are sought through means of reconciliation and compromises. The Eastern Code CCEO has more detailed canons in this regard than the Latin counterpart CIC. These canons are on Settlement and Compromise by Arbitrators (CCEO 1164- 1184) . Different dioceses and eparchies have started constituting Reconciliation Forums to resolve conflicts in the Church.

2. Recourses against administrative decrees: Hierarchical recourse in vindication and defence of a right entails appeal to the immediate superior. The norms in this regard are seen in CCEO canons 996-1006 and CIC canons 1732-1739. But critics, in general, are of the opinion that this system has several inherent limitations and is time consuming. Francis G. Morrisey OMI says:

“We note a lack of binding administrative procedures to protect rights (c. 1733). While there are a number of procedures foreseen to allow for administrative recourse, there is no prescription mandating the establishment of boards or other institutions to receive such recourse. Matters are still kept in a “hierarchical” context. Furthermore, experience shows that the tribunal and professional costs involved deter some persons who have a valid case from requesting assistance.”

3. Administrative Tribunals : The System of Administrative Tribunals to resolve conflicts arising out of administrative acts / decrees is in vogue in civil societies. In the past, the Church made use of the possibility for hierarchical recourses to resolve similar conflicts. The 1980 draft of the new Code of Canon Law of the Latin Church contained 28 canons on administrative procedures, including a provision authorizing the various Episcopal conferences to establish national administrative tribunals . But the present Latin Code CIC (1983) has only a reference to administrative tribunal in canon 1400 § 2 (Cf. also. C. 221) which, according to recent interpretation, refers to the Administrative Tribunal in the Signature Apostolica (CIC. 1445 § 2).The oriental Code CCEO does not speak explicitly about ‘Administrative Tribunals’. But canon 998 states:

§ 1 It is very desirable that whenever someone feels injured by a decree, there not be a dispute between this person and the author of the decree, but they seek to find an equitable solution between them, perhaps through the use of wise persons in mediation or study so that through a voluntary emendation of the decree or through just compensation or by some other suitable means the controversy may be avoided.

§ 2. The superior authority should encourage the parties to do this before he receives the appeal.

In the light of this canon, experts in law and administration argue for the constitution of ‘Reconciliation Offices’ or ‘Arbitration Centers’ or Administrative Tribunals’ in every diocese / eparchy and Sui iuris Church.

The Syro Malabar Church has taken note of this canon and its particular law on Palliyogam prescribes for the erection of the ‘Administrative Tribunal’ in article no. 70. We read:

All disputes and complaints with regard to the conduct, proceedings, resolutions, decisions and actions taken or adopted by the Pothuyogam or Pratinidhiyogam shall be preferred by the aggrieved before the Administrative Tribunal constituted by the eparchial bishop for such purpose, within seven days from the date of such Yogam. The Tribunal shall dispose off the dispute or complaint within 30 days from the receipt of such complaints. A recourse shall lie on the decision of the Tribunal to the eparchial bishop within 15 days of such decision of the Tribunal. The eparchial bishop shall dispose off the recourse as expeditiously as possible and his decision shall be final .

According to this norm, the Administrative Tribunal is meant only for resolving the conflicts arising from the activities of the Palliyogam. Most of the Syro Malabar Eparchies within the proper territory have already enacted eparchial norms for the implementation of the same.

But according to the spirit of CCEO canon 998 (CIC cc. 149§2, 1400 § 2) There is a greater demand for the establishment of Administrative Tribunals or such mediatory bodies for resolving controversies arising from all kinds of administrative decrees. As asked by the chairman of the Commission for Particular Law of the Syro Malabar Church, the present author has prepared and submitted draft statutes for administrative tribunals in each eparchy. It is up to the Synod of Bishop to make a policy in this regard.

3. Judicial Protection

The Church has a very beautiful system of judicial (CIC cc. 1400-1752; CCEO cc. 1055-1400). Canon Law says that the objects of a trial are (1) to pursue or vindicate the rights of physical or juridical persons or to declare juridical facts and (2) to impose or to declare penalties in regard to offences (CIC c. 1400 § 1). It is a fundamental right of all Christian faithful that they can legitimately vindicate and defend their rights in ecclesiastical courts; that they be judged or punished only in accordance with the law. (CIC c. 221; CCEO c. 24).


Every right in the Church has got its limitations, conditions and obligations. This is made with the ulterior motive of the common good of the Church in general and of the individual in particular. But sometimes it may happen that these limitations, conditions and obligations are such that ordinary persons are not able to fulfill them. In such cases there may occur instances of violation of rights.

1. Implication of CIC canon 223 and CCEO canon 26

‘In availing of any freedom men must respect the moral principle of personal and social responsibility; in exercising their rights individual men and social groups are bound by the moral law to have regard for the rights of others, their own duties to others and the common good of all’. Based on this principle enunciated by the Decree Dignitatis Humanae no. 7 of Second Vatican Council, CIC canon 223 (CCEO c. 26) says:

§1 In exercising their rights, Christ’s faithful, both individually and in associations, must take account of the common good of the Church as well as the rights of others and their own duties to others.

§2 Ecclesiastical authority is entitled to regulate, in view of the common good, the exercise of rights which are proper to Christ’s faithful.

This canon spells out three types of limitations: (1) the common good of the Church, not the broader ‘common good of all’; (b) rights of others, thus avoiding unnecessary conflicts; (3) the duties of Christ’s faithful towards others, thus reminder of the responsibilities each person has towards others . These limitations apply only to the exercise of rights and not the existence of rights and as per CIC canon 18, these have to be interpreted strictly. The canon 223, especially paragraph two is not intended as a basis for the arbitrary use of authority, rather it is intended as a protection against possible abuses arising from the exercise of alleged rights by individuals or groups. The Code gives provision for limiting the exercise of certain rights by imposing sanctions (CIC c. 1336). Second Vatican Council says: “man’s freedom should be given the fullest possible recognition and should not be curtailed except when and insofar as is necessary” .

2. Limitations of the present Codes on the rights of the laity

Both the Codes CIC (cc. 224-231) and CCEO (cc. 400-409) have given certain specific rights to the laity. But a critical analysis of the canons would make us doubt whether they are rights at all. Jean Gaudemet says:

The canons of CIC speak often of ‘rights and obligations’ with reference to one and the same situation. Is it a matter of a right or an obligation? Sometimes it is fact one or the other. But more often the canon refers to functions to be performed, task to be fulfilled, without there being any right or obligation of the laity to do so. Such is the case, for example, when it is a matter of calling layman to ‘ecclesiastical offices and charges (c. 228§1), requesting his advice (c. 228§3), inciting him to seek instruction (c. 229), associating him in the liturgy (c. 230). The lay man does not have ‘the right to demand that a function should be granted him, nor can the ecclesiastical authority compel him to perform any such, in the name of an ‘obligation’, which would encumber him. It is all a matter of competence, availability and ‘good will’ on the one side, and solicitude, invitation, and suggestion on the other. The legislator of 1983 has infelicitously introduced ‘the law’ with all the prerogatives and its constraints, into domains where human relations can be nothing but hope for the happy resolution of negotiations. It is not a matter of the exercise of any right or of the burden of constraints, but of functions to be assumed, of missions to be accomplished. It is for law to open up these possibilities, and for people to know under which conditions they are able to engage themselves”

3. Violations of the rights of the laity

We have already seen that all Christian faithful have certain rights in the Church. But, often lay people complain that no action is taken when their rights are curtailed. For example, lay people are considered to be faithful of lower grade, women are not given equal status in the Church, laity are denied sacraments and sacramentals without just cause; they are totally ignored in the administration of the Church; they are not allowed to play active role in liturgical functions, rituals are not respected, etc. Some of these questions are treated below with the purpose of knowing the spirit of the Church regarding the rights of the laity.

IV. Fundamental Equality in the Church and Discriminations

1. Fundamental Equality

Based on the teaching of Second Vatican Council, (LG 32 & GS 29) the codes in canons 208 of CIC and 11 of CCEO clearly state that “flowing from their rebirth in Christ, there is a genuine equality of dignity and action among all of Christs’ faithful”. Therefore all forms of discrimination is to be rejected. Church is not a democracy, but a hierarchical society governed not by the people, but for the people. Therefore all Christian faithful equally contribute to the building up of the body of Christ, but each according to his or her own condition and office.

2. Is there discrimination in the Church?

As in the civil society, there have been complaints that discrimination based on caste, sex, nationality, rite etc., also take place in the Church. One of the reasons for this complaint is due to a false understanding of power of governance in the Church. All Christian faithful acquire certain rights through the reception of baptism; but the power of governance is acquired through the reception of Sacred Orders and offices that entail the exercise of that power are restricted to clerics (CIC c. 129 § 1; 274 § 1; CCEO cc. 979; 371). According to canon 1024 of CIC women are excluded from ordained ministry. Therefore layman and lay woman can exercise their rights and obligations only in accordance with his or her own condition and office. But the Church being a human society, discriminate based on caste, rite, nationality, etc., sometimes do take place.

Unlike the earlier Code, the 1983 Code has tried to eradicate many expressions of sexual discrimination . But the Eastern Code CCEO has retained some like transfer of rite (CIC c. 112; § 1 n. 2; CCEO c. 33) with the purpose of safeguarding the existence and growth of the Eastern Churches which are oftern found to be minorities.


One of the most important complaints of the laity against the clergy is that they are often denied or delayed sacraments and sacramentals. As we deal with the rights of the laity, it is appropriated to look into the spirit of the Church from a legal and pastoral point of view.

1. Right for spiritual assistance

CIC c. 213 and CCEO c. 16 clearly state that “The Christian faithful have the right to receive assistance from the sacred pastors out of the spiritual goods of the Church, especially the word of God and the sacraments”. This right of the faithful is rooted in baptism and is not a privilege to be granted by Church authorities. Accordingly pastors have grave obligation (CIC cc. 386-387) to respond to this right by preaching and catechetical formation (CIC cc. 756-780); by ensuring that theology is taught in Catholic universities (c. 811); by ensuring proper preparation for the sacraments (c. 843 § 2); by care of the sick (c. 911§1), by providing for the hearing of confessions (c. 986) etc.

2. Denial of Sacraments

The possibility for the denial of sacraments can be deduced from CIC canon 843 § 1 where we read: “The sacred ministers cannot refuse the sacraments to those who ask for them at appropriate times, are properly dispose and are not prohibited by law from receiving them”. In other words, there are three general reasons why a sacrament may be denied or, better put , delayed: (1) when someone asks for it at a time not opportune or appropriate, (2) when the person lacks proper disposition and (3) the law prohibits reception . The requirement of a proper disposition to receive the sacraments includes the need for a sufficient faith to be open to the grace of the sacraments. Any doubts about the proper disposition should be resolved in favour of the person’s request to receive the sacrament. Canon law requires strict interpretation of the law whenever some legal right is at stake (CIC c. 18). In reference to the denial of a sacrament, this means that ministers are not free to impose their own standards for sacramental reception .

In the new Codes we find specific reference to such prohibition by law only to two sacraments, namely reception of the sacraments of Holy Eucharist and anointing the sick. But based on the above said reasons, denial of other sacraments also could be made. Sacraments could also be denied to those, who after a due process, are impose with sanctions (CIC cc. 1341-1363).

When there is denial of sacraments, especially those of initiation there is the involvement not only the rights of the recipients, but also of the rights of parents or those who are responsible for their care . Here below is briefly given the general norms regarding the denial of some of the sacraments and sacramentals.

1. Denial / delay of infant baptism : The question of baptism of the children of public sinners, sometimes even of those who do not frequent the church (marginal Catholics), has been a great concern for the Church in India. The law in this regard is the following (CIC c. 868 § 1; CCEO c. 681 § 1):

Ҥ 1. For the licit baptism of an infant it is necessary that: (1) the parents or at least one of them or the person who lawfully takes their place give consent; (2) there be a founded hope that the infant will be brought up in the Catholic religion; if such a hope is altogether lacking, the baptism is to be put off according to the prescriptions of particular law and the parents are to be informed of the reason. [The CBCI has not made any special regulation in this regard ].

In short, what we can say is that if there is founded hope that child will be brought up in the Catholic Church, infant baptism could be given.

2. Denial of Confirmation : The sacraments of baptism and confirmation are closely correlated. As per CIC cc. 889-890 and CCEO cc. 692-697 all the baptized have the right to be confirmed. The same reasons, which are applied for the reception or denial / delay of baptism, could be applied to confirmation .

3. Denial of the reception of Holy Eucharist : Here we have to deal with two types of reception of holy Eucharist: (1) at First Holy Communion and (2) at other times. CIC canon 912 says: Any baptized person who is not forbidden by law may and must be admitted to Holy Communion. The general requirements for this are (1) sufficient knowledge, (2) sufficient preparation; (3) in danger of death, the minimum knowledge to distinguish the Body of Christ from ordinary bread and (4) as per CIC c. 914 & 916, sacramental confession.

CIC c. 915 says: “Those who are excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion”. CIC c. 916 is about those persons who are conscious about grave sins who shall not receive the sacrament. According to CIC c. 915, the following persons can be denied Holy Communion:

i) the excommunicated (c. 1331)

ii) the interdicted (c. 1332)

iii) other manifest sinners

Canonists are of different opinion in interpreting this prohibition. In order to deny the sacrament the following conditions are to be fulfilled: (a) The person should obstinately persist in sin: obstinate persistence is indicated when a person persists in the sin or sinful situation and does not heed to the warnings of the Church authorities or adhere to church teachings. (b) Priests in manifest sin: when the sin is publicly known, even if only by a few. (c) Persist in grave sin: generally the grave sin is considered to be the mortal sins. Interpreting and remarried need not be in a state of grave mortal sin (since it is a matter of internal forum) and therefore communion could be given to them . But this is not the official stand of the Church.

CCEO is clearer in this regard. We read in canon 712: “Those who are publicly unworthy are forbidden from receiving the Divine Eucharist”. Commenting on this, Pospishil says:

“This could refer to someone who had a marriage with an Eastern non-Catholic blessed in the latter’s church without permission from the Catholic bishop, which rendered the marriage valid but unlawful. In as much as this constitutes a public disregard of a Church commandment, it is a public sin. However, the reception of penance and then of the Holy Communion will be a sufficient public satisfaction. Despite the negative attitude expressed by Familiaris Consilio (83, 84) against the reception of communion by remarried divorced persons, canonists and theologians have advanced reasons why the exclusion may appear unjustified” .

4. Denial of Marriage : According to CIC c. 1058 and CCEO canon 778 all persons can either enter into marriage who are not prohibited by law. It is evident that when there are specific prohibitions of law like existence of impediments, lack of consent, sacramental marriage can be denied. But other questions which concern us most is whether sacramental marriage can be denied when there is lack of faith in the recipient or when there is lack of sufficient preparation. CIC canon 1063 and CCEO canons 783-785 deals elaborately on this matter. It is possible that the pastor dissuade a person who has no faith from entering into sacramental marriage. But as per Church law, valid marriage could take place even with atheists. So it cannot be categorically said sacramental marriage should be denied to them. Similarly the parties have to be prepared for marriage. The Code addresses the pastors regarding their obligation to prepare the couple for marriage. Therefore, on the basis of lack of sufficient preparation, we cannot deny marriage, but only delay the celebration until sufficient preparations are made.

5. Denial of Anointing the Sick: only the Latin Code makes an explicit prohibition on the reception of the sacrament of ‘the anointing of the Sick.’ We read in CIC c. 1007: “The anointing of the sick is not to be conferred upon those who obstinately persist in manifest serious sin”. In doubtful cases, presumption is in favour of the person, or conditional anointing can be given as stated in the previous law (CIC [1917] c. 942).

3. Denial of Sacramentals especially Ecclesiastical Funeral

Denial of sacramentals like house blessing, ecclesiastical funeral etc. has also been creating confusion and tension in different parishes today. The crucial problem is regarding funeral. Hence it is appropriate to deal with it in detail.

1. The right for ecclesiastical funeral: According to CIC c. 1176 § 1: “The Christian faithful departed are to be given ecclesiastical funeral rites according to the norm of law”. The CCEO canon875 says: “All Christian faithful and catechumens, unless they are deprived of law, must be given an ecclesiastical funeral, by which the Church asks for spiritual assistance for the departed, honors their bodies, and at the same time brings the solace of hope to the living” (c.875).

2. Denial of Ecclesiastical funeral: We read in CIC c. 1184:

Ҥ1 unless they have given some signs of repentance before their death the following are to be deprived of ecclesiastical funeral rites:

1° Notorious apostates, heretics and schismatics;

2° persons who had chosen the cremation of; their own bodies for reasons opposed to the Christian faith;

3° other manifest sinners for whom ecclesiastical funeral rites cannot be granted without public scandal to the faithful.

§2 If some doubt should arise, the local ordinary is to be consulted; and his judgement is to be followed.”

The corresponding CCEO canon (c. 877) reads as follows:

“Sinners are to be deprived of an ecclesiastical funeral who cannot be granted it without public scandal to the Christian faithful, unless prior to death they gave some signs of repentance.”

Cases of denial of Christian burial have largely been dropped in the new code. In the old law (CIC c. 1240 § 1) there were sis cases in which ecclesiastical funeral were denied . At the same time the new code CIC, responding to many requests offer a listing of sins warranting denial of burial, even if such a listing is not a taxative one. The Eastern Code has given a more generic and liberal attitude in this regard. In applying the canon on denial of Christin burial, strict interpretation has to be given .

i) Notorious Apostates, heretics and schismatics: CIC canon 751 (CCEO c. 1436) defines what apostasy, heresy and schism are. Ecclesiastical funeral is to be denied to these people. But the Code adds the clause, “notorious”. Notoriety is not discussed in the revised code; however, in the light of the prior Code, it may be understood in two different ways: Notoriety in law follows the sentence of a competent judge or a judicial confession. Notoriety in fact means that an action is publicly known or has been committed in such circumstances that it is entirely impossible to conceal it or offer any legal justification for it (CIC 1917 c. 2197). A properly strict interpretation of the canon seems to require that notoriety in law be verified before ecclesiastical burial is denied. Furthermore it should be noted that those whose are baptized into non-Catholic Churches are not technically considered heretics or schismatics .

ii) Other Manifest sinners: As explained earlier, the term ‘other manifest sinners’ is a very generic one and in such cases it is very difficult to take a decision. According to the Code, the right of Christian burial should not be denied to manifest sinners, if there is no public scandal. The committee for the preparation of this canon discussed in detail about the nature and contents of this canon. They decided not to include such cases as of members of forbidden societies, those who deliberately commit suicide, those who are killed in a duel etc . According to their view, those who are excommunicated are included in the general category of ‘public or manifest sinner.’ Those who are subject to interdict are not technically included in this category. The denial of burial to those who adhere to forbidden societies arise only when they are publicly categorized as manifest sinners.

iii) The Eastern Term “Sinners”: The Eastern Code uses the term “Sinners’ without any specification. From the context we have to understand that the Code means by that “manifest sinners”. As per CCEO c. 875 all Christians must be given ecclesiastical funeral except those who are deprived by law. Accordingly, sinners in order to be deprived of ecclesiastical funeral must be deprived by law. Since CCEO admits only poenae ferendae sententiae, the logical conclusion would be that sinners are those who are so declared by excommunication, interdict, etc.

Pospishil commenting on CCEO canon 877 says:

Public Sinners, who have not shown any sign of repentance, especially those church funerals would cause bewilderment or even give a bad example to others cannot receive an ecclesiastical funeral. Of course, what constitutes a manifest, public sinful behaviour is to be decided in accordance with principles of moral theology. Generally, those who live in concubinage or in unions not recognized by the Church, are considered to be public sinners if they have not given any sign of repentance. It should also be taken into consideration that in numerous instances the sinful actions are being remembered by few persons and that the denial of a funeral, even though justified, could sometimes be the cause of injury to the Church. One could consider the granting of some parts of the funeral rite, for instances, omitting the transfer of the body to the Church, to lessen on the one hand the embarrassment of the family members, and on the other hand protect the common good.”

iv) Doubtful Cases: According to CIC c. 1184 § 2 the local ordinary has to be consulted and his directives are to be followed in doubtful cases. This is to avoid unhealthy discretionary attitude of some parish priests. It is also good to note that in doubtful cases, the law has to be interpreted in favour of the person.

3. Cremation: The former law (CIC [1917] c. 1240 § 1 n. 5) forbade ecclesiastical funeral rites for all persons who were cremated; but the present law limits he prohibition to those who choose cremation for reasons opposed to Christian faith (CIC c. 1184 § 1,2).

The new Codes of Canon Law give explicit permission for cremation of bodies unless it has been chosen for reasons, which are contrary to Christian teaching (CIC 1176 § 3). The CCEO is more affirmative in this regards. We read in canon 876 § 3: “Those who choose cremation for their bodies, unless such a choice was made for reasons contrary to the conduct of Christian life, are to be granted an ecclesiastical funeral, provided that it does not obscure the preference of the Church for the burial of the bodies and that scandal is avoided”.

Recently there have been heated discussions in the ecclesiastical circles in U.S.A . There is no problem for the funeral rites including funeral Mass before the cremation of body. But the discussions are regarding the funeral rites for the cremated remains and the funeral Mass in the Church with the cremated remains. In certain cases Rome has given permissions.

4. Funeral Mass : CIC c. 1185 : “Any funeral Mass whatsoever is also to be denied a person excluded from ecclesiastical funeral rites”.

Although the previous Latin Law prohibited anniversary Masses and any type of public ceremony for those to whom ecclesiastical burial rites were denied, the present Code does not restate this question. Oftentimes Masses are requested for non-Catholics who would not be allowed a Catholic funeral in accordance with CIC c. 1183 § 3; but the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith has ruled out that there is no problem with Private Masses . The Conditions are that (1) the request for celebration should be out of genuine motive, (2) scandal on the part of other faithful is absent. These norms for the non-Catholics, can surely, be applied for the sinners. We have to make sure that the name of the deceased person is not mentioned during the Eucharist, since such commemoration presupposes full communion with the Catholic Church.

The Eastern Code does not deal with this question. Commenting on canon 877 Pospishil says: “The denial of a funeral also excludes the publicized celebration of memorial services, as the Divine Liturgy, for such persons. Private services are not forbidden”


Church is a communion of Churches and the theology of this communion is very well recognized by the Second Vatican Council (OE nos. 2, 3, 5). The Council also speaks about the equality of the Churches (OE. 2-5). The definitions contained in CIC c. 204 and CCEO c. 7 envisage Church as a Communion and a Society. This is seen in three forms: Communion of the faithful, communion of the Hierarchy and communion of the Churches. Unlike CIC, CCEO has enlarged the concept of Church as Communion of Churches through its legislation on sui iuris Churches which we see in canons 27-28, 5-176. Accordingly, at present there are 22 sui iuris Churches in the Catholic Church.

Basic equality in the Church also calls for the recognition, promotion and vindication of rights of the sui iuris Churches and ritual rights of individuals. CCEO canons 39-41 give special norms for the protection and promotion of rites. CIC canon 214 (CCEO c. 17) reads:

Christ’s faithful have the right to worship God according to the provisions of their own rite approved by the lawful pastors of the Church; they also have the right to follow their own form of spiritual life, provided it is in accord with Church teaching.

CCEO canon 193 calls for the serious obligation of eparchial/diocesan bishops to provide for the spiritual needs Christian faithful of other sui iuris Churches by providing pastors, parishes (280 § 1), vicars general / syncelli (c. 246; CIC c. 476, 479) and even eparchies / dioceses. (CIC c. 372 § 2).

We read in CIC 383 § 2:

If he (Diocesan Bishop) has faithful of a different rite in his diocese, he is to provide for their spiritual needs either by means of priests or parishes of the same rite, or by an Episcopal Vicar. (CIC cc. 476, 479)

Regarding the necessity of erecting dioceses/eparchies CIC. 372 § 2 says:

If however, in the judgement of the supreme authority in the Church, after consultation with the Bishop’s Conferences concerned, it is thought to be helpful, there may be established in a given territory particular Churches distinguished by the rite of the faithful or by some other similar quality.

About the rights of individuals to have a priest of their rite for the celebration of baptism, when he is available, CCEO 678 says:

In the territory of another it is not licit for anyone to administer baptism without the required permission; this permission cannot be denied by a pastor of a different Church sui iuris to a priest of Church sui iuris in which the person to be baptized to be enrolled.

The Church wants that every sui iuris Chrch is fostered and be given equal rights and obligations regarding the mission of Christ in the fields of evangelization and pastoral care; that the ritual rights of members of sui iuris churches are safeguarded and that adequate ritual formation and pastoral care are given. The norms regarding ritual formation in religious institutes (CCEO c. 342), regarding ordination of candidates to priesthood belonging to another sui iuris Church (CCEO c. 748), etc. are based on this principle. About the fundamental rights of the laity we read in CCEO canon 403 § 1 :

With due regard for the right and obligation to preserve everywhere their own rite, lay persons have the right to participate actively in the liturgical celebrations of any Church sui iuris whatsoever, according to the norms of the liturgical books.

But there have been serious complaints that these ritual rights are not recognized and respected in different parts of the world, especially in India.

VII. Tights related to Teaching Ministry and Ecclesiastical Governance

Both the Latin and Eastern Codes speaks about different rights of the laity related to the teaching ministry and ecclesiastical governance in the Church. But as mentioned above, they refer mainly to some functions to be performed, tasks to be fulfilled, without there being any real right or obligation.

1. Rights of the Laity related to Teaching Ministry

The following are the important rights of the laity related to the teaching ministry in the Church.

1. Mission of the Laity (CIC cc. 225; 211; 762; CCEO cc. 406; 14) to announce the Gospel according to their state of life and to follow their vocation in marriage and family life (CIC 226; CCEO 407, 627 § 1).

2. Right for acquiring knowledge concerning (1) Catechetical formation from infancy, (2) Doctrine revealed by Christ and as taught by the Magisterium (3) Sacred Sciences as taught in Universities, and (4) having become qualified, they can receive a mandate to teach sacred sciences (CIC cc. 217, 218, 229; 811§1, 812; CCEO cc. 20, 21, 404).

3. They have also the rights to form associations for spiritual, charitable, missionary activities (CIC c. 215, 216; CCEO 18, 19, 405).

2. Rights of the Laity related to Ecclesiastical Governance

1. Rights for Ecclesiastical functions (CIC cc. 228§1, CCEO c. 408 § 2) The law of the Church gives various provisions that the lay people can be given ecclesiastical functions that do not require holy order. Lay persons can be appointed as experts or consultors of various councils and assemblies (CIC c. 228§ 2; CCEO 408 § 1); as judges of ecclesiastical tribunals (CIC c. 1421§2; CCEO c. 1087§2), as advocates (CCEO c. 1139; CIC c. 1481), assessor in a single judge trial (CCEO c. 1089, CIC c. 1424); auditor of tribunals (CCEO c. 1093 § 1 & 2; CIC c. 1424 § 2); promoter of justice and defender of bond (CCEO c.1099 § 2; CIC c. 1435); notary of tribunal (CCEO c. 1101; CIC c. 1437); as chancellor or vice – chancellor in the Latin diocesan Curia (CIC. 482), as notary (CIC. 483) etc. For this purpose laity are obliged to acquire a suitable formation which is required to fulfill their function and they are to equitable remunerated for the same (CCEO c. 409) .

Rights of the Laity in the administration of temporalities: We have already seen that the specific character of the laity is “secularity” and therefore laity has to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in the temporal affairs. Fr. George Nedungatt, after making a detailed study on the history and law on the temporalities in the Church concludes:

Paradoxical, it may sound, the secularity, which is the characteristic mark of lay apostolate, does not however postulate an inherent right of the laity to administer the temporal goods of the Church. Law provides, however that qualified lay people may administer them” .

The eastern Churches in general, especially the Non-Catholic Oriental Churches give more decisive role to the laity for the administration of the Church in matters of temporal affairs.


One of the most important contributions of the Second Vatican Council and subsequently of the Codes of Canon law promulgated in the years 1983 and 1990 is the change in the assignment of the role of the laity in the life of the Church. One can say that the laity have recovered considerable part of the role they enjoy in the primitive Christian community . For the first time, the Church made a positive definition about the laity. The ‘fundamental character’ on the rights of Christian faithful, which can be considered as part of Lex Ecclesiae Fundamentalis, made it clear that there is basic equality in the church, as all Christian faithful, through the reception of baptism, equally partake in the threefold functions of Christ.

In the present study, we were aiming at the understanding of the rights of the laity and their limitations. Although the clear demarcation of the rights of the laity is praiseworthy, many of the specific rights assigned to the laity are merely some functions to be performed or tasks to be fulfilled, without there being any real right or obligation. The Codes have envisaged protective measures like recognition, promotion, and vindication of the rights through hierarchical recourse and tribunals. From experience it is found that hierarchical recourse has many inherent limitations. Establishment of local administrative tribunals, such as one perceived by the Synod of Bishops of the Syro Malabar Churh for resolving conflicts arising from Palliyogam, would be a better system for the vindication of rights of the laity.

The laity have many rights related to spiritual assistance, Christian formation, ritual formation and the like. But sometimes, sacraments and sacramentals are denied with arbitrary norms made by pastors. Only when persons in authority are on the know of the rights of the laity and are ready to recognize and respect them, vindication of the rights of the laity could be ensured.